Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who Chose the Gospels?

I've heard many times now (mainly from Ivy League Gnostics) that the Christian canon was imposed top down by a theologically narrow oligarch of bishops bent on eradicating all traces of diversity from the ecclesial landscape. I think the truth of the matter is that the four Gospels reflect the diversity within the majority of the early church and the so-called "lost Gospels" lost out because they weren't all that popular and weren't all that good to begin with. The Fourfold Gospel arose out of a large consensus of the eastern and western churches and not because a cohort of bishops with the backing of Roman power decreed it by force.

One book on this subject that has come out and I'm looking forward to reading is Charles E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Conspiracy (Oxford: OUP, 2010). According to the blurb:

It is now widely said that the four Gospels rose to prominence only after a long battle within early Christianity, a battle finally won in the fourth century, after the establishment of the Church by Constantine the Great. In Who Chose the Gospels? Charles E. Hill demolishes this claim, providing a more historically accurate, alternative account of how the Church came to acknowledge four, and only four, narratives of the life of Jesus. Hill offers not only an informed critique of recent, overtly "political" readings of early Christian history, but also a more nuanced analysis of how and why, out of all the Gospels written in the early centuries of the Church, just these four "made it" into the Bible. In fact, the author shows that despite the profusion of Gospels, there was wide agreement among church leaders, in diverse regions of the empire, at least from the second century onward, as to the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Thus it was not a conspiracy but common consensus that determined the books of the New Testament.


EricW said...

Per the online "Look Inside" view of the pages of the book at, it doesn't appear that Hill references in the Endnotes or Index David Trobisch or his thesis that Polycarp of Smyrna may have been largely responsible for the form and contents of our New Testament. Would Trobisch's thesis impact Hill's work?

Jeremiah said...

I guess Irenaeus, with his strong emphasis on the four Gospels, was channeling the spirit of Constantine before he was even born. ;-)

TonyTheProf said...

I've always found it significant that the four gospels don't have their authors names, whereas the gnostic ones all tell you who wrote them - which marks them out (I think) as trying to hard to claim authenticity.

True - the four gospels are attributed to people, most notable (although debatable) Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but they don't say who wrote them.

For example: Acts of Peter, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Thomas all announce their authorship. Some do not, like the Gospel of Mary, but that is missing the introductory texts.

Tony Burke said...

The "gnostic ones" don't tell you who wrote them at all. Several of your examples are named not for authorship but for content (e.g., the Acts of Peter is about Peter, not by him), and there is good reason to think that Gospel of Thomas received its name at a later stage of development (like the canonical gospels).

Unknown said...

I'm reading this book. Hill does agree with your basic conclusion and calls out the Ivy League Gnostics (not to mention Ivy Leage Agnostics) for their passing over certain historical data (e.g. about Serapion and his predecessor Theophilus), misinterpreting other points (partly because of their paradigmatic assumptions, including the Bauer thesis), and arguing with too much certainty and hyperbole in their conclusions.

Hill generally exhibits more humility, not arguing for conclusiveness but letting the evidence, as he presents and interprets it, stand as clues for getting at what was historically true -- viz. whether the four gospels were widely and exclusively received as authoritative in the second century and earlier. So far, I like it.

Hill had an article on this subject in the HuffPo a while back, though the short format doesn't give him the best platform for his arguments.